Homer’s historical context

Reviewing a few translations of Homer’s epics in the 1990s, James Davidson gave an overview of the how scholars have thought about Homer and also included his own thoughts on the relationship of the Iliad and the Odyssey to the legend of the Trojan War:

The extent of Homer’s subtlety in the Iliad will always be debated, but it seems certain that he assumed his audience already knew the tale of Troy and that he plays against this background, using their assumptions to create effects of irony, suspense, pathos and surprise. What he did was not so different, after all, from what the great tragedians did, or what Ovid did, or Apollonius of Rhodes, putting a new spin on ancient tales.

Building on this assumption, we can begin to approach the question of Homer’s originality. From what we know of the other epics, they covered much longer periods and many more fantastic events in many fewer lines. The bards who entertain the court in the palace of the Phaeacians and the suitors of Penelope in Odysseus’ home also manage to get more action into a shorter space of time. Almost the whole of the immense Iliad, by contrast, covers only a few days in the ten-year saga of the Trojan War and it tells of only one episode out of many, the wrath of Achilles. It is a small detail from the big picture, blown up to monumental size. It should have been a short interlude, perhaps, a little entertainment between courses. The surprise that greets modern readers, therefore, when they discover that the Iliad does not in fact begin at the beginning and contains no mention of the Judgment of Paris or the fatal Horse, may well have been the reaction of Homer’s original audience. Instead of adding on other episodes, Homer brings a magnifying glass to the tale and fills the time by deepening his characters, by realising more fully their imagined world, by broadening the narrative, rather than simply extending it. The other storytellers in the epics are not models for Homer’s project, but designed to point up a contrast with his own more detailed, more lifelike work. He thus sets himself off against the balladeers, self-consciously highlighting his own originality.

The Odyssey seems to take innovation even further. Odysseus is a prominent figure in the Iliad and features in several Trojan tales that lie outside it. One story tells how he tried to avoid serving on the expedition by feigning madness and ploughing a field, until someone places baby Telemachus in his path, arresting his lunatic progress and exposing his folly as a sham. There is little sign, however, of a non-Homeric tradition of his return. Troy is a famous story and its fame resonates throughout the Odyssey. But when Homer begins the tale of Odysseus’ return he seems to have little idea of where the story is going, as if his audience have never heard it before. The earliest painted scenes, moreover, look like precise illustrations of Homer’s text, leaving the impression that he has a monopoly on the subject. Even the fabulous Phaeacians seem to crop up nowhere else. There must, therefore, be a distinct possibility that the story of the Odyssey is largely Homer’s own. With all their twists and turns and feints and illusions, both the plot and the voyage look like projections of the hero’s multivalent Iliadic personality (or inventions of his subtle imagination), his homecoming an extrapolation from his reluctance to leave his wife and son. There were traditions, to be sure, about other voyages. Homer already knows of the Argo, and both Hercules and Perseus were sent to the ends of the earth in search of exotic quarry. The Odyssey seems to have used some of this material. The witch Circe, in particular, looks like she is in the wrong saga. She really belongs to Aia (Colchis) rather than the island of Aiaia, being Aeëtes’ sister and Medea’s maiden aunt. Read against these other myths, the Odyssey looks not like another version but an inversion of the fantastic voyage. Odysseus’ journey is always being deconstructed. A favourable wind from Aeolus takes him in sight of Ithaca, but then he gets blown back off course. He visits and revisits Aeolus, Circe, Scylla and Charybdis and ends up on Calypso’s aimlessly floating isle. His journey keeps unravelling itself teasingly like Penelope’s famous loom. His odyssey is not a linear journey to more and more peculiar realms; it is a quest without a quarry that spirals dispiritingly into time. Far from searching for a Golden Fleece or the Head of Medusa or the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, Odysseus turns down the prize offered him of immortality. He just wants to go home.

The voyage itself, moreover, is related not by the poet’s voice but out of Odysseus’ own mouth as a guest of the Phaeacians, as if Homer was marking his distance from the more fantastic elements of his tale from the mythodes, from oral history. It has to be like this, of course, because Odysseus alone survives. No one else knows what he has been up to these past ten years. His cannot be a famous story because he has disappeared from the heroic tradition, out of sight of men and the earshot of bards. He has disappeared from fame. When we see him clinging to the pieces of his broken craft, close to extinction, the fate of the poem itself is in the balance. He alone carries with him the account of his exiguous history. Without Odysseus, the Odyssey is sunk. The contrast with the Iliad and the Argonautica could not be more profound. The Odyssey is presented as a new and terrifying venture in literature, a story that has never been told. If the Iliad is the first example of great literature built up out of old stories, the Odyssey, perhaps, inaugurates the bizarre tradition of making things up.

The whole essay was worth reading, even with his unnecessary shot at creationists. He comments on translations in general and several different English translations particularly at the end.

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4 comments

  1. I must admit that I’m no creationist, and generally find creationism either silly or dangerous (and full of erroneous assumptions and bad theology). That said, I am a fan of civil speech, and the stating of objections clearly and respectfully. Since I haven’t read the review (which looks AWESOME), I can’t say whether he was or not.

    His failed use of the proper subjunctive for the verb “to be” follows typical English use — and that’s annoying, but there’s nothing I can do about that.

    Looking forward to reading the review! Keep posting things on Homer!

  2. I’m glad that you’re enjoying the Homeric character of the recent posts! Let me know what you think of Davidson if you get a chance.

    • “Homer was a mere pinnacle projecting above the surface, part of the long and ancient chain of the oral tradition. If this meant that his reputation as a creative poet was diminished somewhat, he could be revered instead as a hexametrical technician, a masterful choreographer of the material he had inherited.”

      Hexametrical technician. Brilliant phrase.

      The offending passage regarding Creationism: “[…] both epics [_i.e._, _The Iliad_ and _The Odyssey_] are dotted with occasional references to events of the Trojan War that the Iliad does not cover. […] Again, it is just possible that these allusions have been placed there by the author as a kind of trompe l’oeil, to create the illusion of a world outside his narrative or to tantalise the audience with the promise of future instalments or regret for past appearances they had missed; but here we begin to sound like creationists arguing that fossils were planted by God.” That doesn’t sound like a swipe at all. He’s drawing an analogue. If the analogue fails, one must say how it fails, and let the failure stand, whilst the one correcting it maintains professionalism and gentleness. Who wishes to be in error? Caricatures have their uses, but the kind of Creationism the author is employing really does exist. I’ve met people who say that the universe was created by God with the illusion of age. I do not believe that the Root of all things is irrational, so I do not believe this. (Then again, I am a Platonist — as were nearly all of the early Fathers, adding some Stoic elements.) So I must ask: why did you take offense at this?

      Then there is the economic mention of Homer’s originality: “From what we know of the other epics, they covered much longer periods and many more fantastic events in many fewer lines. […] The surprise that greets modern readers, therefore, when they discover that the Iliad does not in fact begin at the beginning and contains no mention of the Judgment of Paris or the fatal Horse, may well have been the reaction of Homer’s original audience. Instead of adding on other episodes, Homer brings a magnifying glass to the tale and fills the time by deepening his characters, by realising more fully their imagined world, by broadening the narrative, rather than simply extending it. The other storytellers in the epics are not models for Homer’s project, but designed to point up a contrast with his own more detailed, more lifelike work. He thus sets himself off against the balladeers, self-consciously highlighting his own originality.”

      Then there is the excellent question of translation: “how do you begin to put Homer into another language when you have little way of knowing at any particular point if his language is high-falutin’ or contemporary, low-key, bathetic or grand? Is Homer’s readability an illusion created by two and a half millennia of scholarly exegesis or was he equally limpid when he was first performed?”

      The reviewer can be funny while he is being astute, too, as when he writes: “Matthew Arnold set the agenda for modern versions when he insisted Homer should be pacy, noble and plain. Since then, the Oralists have insisted the text should also somehow reflect the ‘orality’ of the poems, which often comes down to a more urgent encouragement of the same thing.”

      In a refreshing change, someone praises the versatility and possibilities of modern English: “Greek, in particular, is also very rich in dialects – Homer uses both Ionic and Aeolic – registers and tones. English is one of the very few languages that can match it for vocabulary and range. It seems a shame if English translators, working under the dogma of accessibility, do not make some effort to use that opportunity.”

      Finally, the summary end: “Homer’s achievement may or may not have depended on six hundred years of oral tradition, but we have four centuries of English versions with which to pin him down. To get the gist of it you could read Fagles or Rieu. For some idea of how he must have sounded to his audiences or to the classical Greeks, we have our own archaic Chapman. To get a taste of his originality, try James Joyce, or Derek Walcott. For drama and pathos try Christopher Logue, and for sheer poetic artistry try Fitzgerald or Alexander Pope. And if, after this, you feel in need of some orality, have some friends round for dinner, put on some music and read it aloud.”

      An excellent review, overall.

  3. I’m glad that you enjoyed it!

    I mostly noted the passage on creationism since I didn’t want to be seen as agreeing with what I perceived as Davidson’s offhand jab. Creationists are easy targets, and I have friends who are committed creationists who may read the post. I don’t have the origins question all sorted out very well myself. I lean creationist as being the plain interpretation of the Bible, but I don’t wish to dismiss God’s gifts of the reason and scientific method either. I don’t usually say much about it at all, because, as you can see, I don’t have very much interesting to say about it. 🙂

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